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The faces of Jesus
December 13th, 2013
09:30 AM ET

Call Jesus (or Santa) white? Expect a big fight

Opinion by Edward J. Blum, special to CNN

(CNN) - Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly sparked outrage this week by insisting that Jesus and Santa Claus are both white, saying it's "ridiculous" to argue that depicting Christ and St. Nick as Caucasian is "racist."

"And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," Kelly said, "but this person is arguing that we should also have a black Santa."

Kelly was responding to an article in Slate that said St. Nick needs a makeover from fat, old white guy to something less "melanin-deficient."

The Fox News host would have none of it.

"Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change," Kelly said. "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure; that's a verifiable fact. As is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy, in the story, and change Santa from white to black?"

Arguing about St. Nick, who was originally Greek before Currier & Ives got their hands on him, is one thing. But as for Jesus, people have been arguing about his skin color since the earliest days of American history. You might even call it an American tradition.

What's new about this latest brouhaha is how swiftly Kelly’s remarks were attacked. Thousands of people have rebuked her through blogs, articles, Twitter posts and Facebook updates.

Comedian Jon Stewart accused Kelly of "going full Christmas nog."

“And who are you actually talking to?" Stewart said on "The Daily Show." "Children who are sophisticated enough to be watching a news channel at 10 o’clock at night, yet innocent enough to still believe Santa Claus is real — yet racist enough to be freaked out if he isn’t white?”

It seems that now, if you want to call Christ — or even Santa — white, you should expect a fierce fight.

The immediate and widespread rebuttal showcases how much America has changed over the past few decades. The nation not only has a black president, but also has refused to endorse the Christian savior as white.

Since the earliest days of America, Jesus was thought of as a white man.

When white Protestant missionaries brought Bibles and whitened images of Jesus to Native Americans, at least a few mocked what they saw.

Taking the imagery seriously, the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh asked future President William Henry Harrison, “How can we have confidence in the white people? When Jesus Christ came upon the earth you kill’d and nail’d him on a cross.”

It was not until around 1900 that a group of white Americans explicitly claimed Jesus was white.

Concerned that large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially Jewish immigrants, were “polluting” the nation, anti-immigrant spokesmen like attorney Madison Grant asserted the whiteness of Jesus to justify calls for exclusionary legislation.

READ MORE: From science and computers, a new face of Jesus

Making Jesus white was a means to distance him from Judaism.

“In depicting the crucifixion no artist hesitates to make the two thieves brunet in contrast to the blond Savior,” Grant wrote in his xenophobic best-seller "The Passing of the Great Race."

“This is something more than a convention,” Grant continued, and suggested that Jesus had “Nordic, possibly Greek, physical and moral attributes.”

Even Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that Jesus was white, after being asked why God created Jesus as a white man.

King responded that the color of Christ’s skin didn’t matter. Jesus would have been just as important “if His skin had been black.” He “is no less significant because His skin was white.”

READ MORE: Turkish town cashes in on Saint Nick legacy

Challenges to Christ’s whiteness have a long history, too.

Famed evangelist Billy Graham preached in the 1950s, and then wrote emphatically in his autobiography "Just As I Am," that, “Jesus was not a white man.”

But Graham was far from the first American to contradict the whiteness of Jesus. That honor goes to Methodist and Pequot Indian William Apess.

In 1833, he wrote to white Christians, “You know as well as I that you are not indebted to a principle beneath a white skin for your religious services but to a colored one.”

Almost 100 years later, the Jamaican born, “back-to-Africa” spokesman Marcus Garvey told his followers, “Never admit that Jesus Christ was a white man, otherwise he could not be the Son of God and God to redeem all mankind. Jesus Christ had the blood of all races in his veins.”

In our age, the color of Christ has become both politically dangerous and the butt of jokes.

In 2008, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s words “God damn America” and “Jesus was a poor black boy” almost derailed then-Sen. Barack Obama from winning the Democratic primary.

Now, Kelly bears the brunt of attacks and, in no surprise, was pilloried by comedians like Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Few Americans went on public record against King when he asserted Jesus had white skin in the 1950s. Today, thousands upon thousands from virtually every race and tribe of Americans have taken Kelly’s words seriously and seriously disdained them.

All the chatter about Jesus being white (or not) shows how much America has changed. There used to be “whites’ only” restaurants and schoolrooms. Now, even Jesus cannot be called white without repercussions.

What the debate hides, however, is what Jesus of the Bible actually did and how he related to people.

The gospels are full of discussions about Jesus and bodies. He healed the blind and those who suffered from disease. He touched and was touched by the sick. His body was pierced by thorns, a spear and nails. And he died.

READ MORE: What all those Jesus jokes tell us

The phenotype of Jesus was never an issue in the Bible. Neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke, nor John mentioned Christ’s skin tone or hair color. None called him white or black or red or brown.

Obsessions about race are obsessions of our age, not the biblical one. When asked what mattered most, Jesus did not say his skin tone or body shape. He instructed his followers to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

Maybe this Christmas season, we can reflect not so much on whether or not Jesus was white and instead consider what it meant for him to be called the “light” of the world.

Edward J. Blum is the co-author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. He can be followed on Twitter @edwardjblum. The views expressed in this column belong to Blum alone.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Art • Belief • Bible • Billy Graham • Black issues • Christianity • Discrimination • Faith • Faith Now • God • Jesus • News media • Opinion • Persecution • Prejudice • Race • United States

soundoff (7,471 Responses)
  1. michaeltodd63

    Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew and likely resembled the Sephardic Jews of our day who, in my opinion, look similar to Arabs, Persians, and Afghanis. It's an issue of secondary importance, though not to be dismissed, since there are those who wish to reject the Messiah due to the shortcomings of white people. Remember too that the Second Commandment forbids images of God. The Apostles made no images of the resurrected Christ, nor should we.
    Christ came to save sinners whether Black, Brown, Asian, or White. There is no other name under Heaven by which men must be saved.

    April 13, 2014 at 7:48 pm |
  2. Choir Loft

    There is sufficient evidence in the secular record to prove that Jesus did in fact live and minister in the time period indicated by the Bible. The sufficiency of evidence, however, is not the issue. The real issue here is the suppression of it.

    and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    March 24, 2014 at 2:31 pm |
  3. codenine75a

    You know. People say Jesus was Jewish and some others say he was actually Hebrew.

    March 3, 2014 at 2:21 am |
    • Choir Loft

      Hebrew people in the Old Testament were composed of 12 separate groups or tribes each with a different name. The tribe of Judah, from whom all Jews are identified was one of the Hebrew tribes. Other tribes were Benjamin, Dan, etc. All Jews are Hebrew, but not all Hebrews were Jews. Therefore Jesus is both Hebrew and Jew.

      and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      March 24, 2014 at 2:04 pm |
    • jonathanlk

      Based on historical discovery we may eventually have to revise what we now hold as 'the story'. It is strongly believed now, at least among scholars, that Jesus was a man that almost certainly was an Essene which was a rebel faction of the Jews living to the south of Jerusalem who were not considered 'real Jews' by the ones living in Jerusalem. Those people had pretty dark skin but not completely black but we know anyone who is not completely white is considered black. But these days we know very well there are white blacks and black whites depending on their racial heritage and that is neither here no there. We also have greys visiting from other planets (just checking to see if you are paying attention). Can't we all just be known as people without mentioning color? I mean we whites are going to lose this argument, so let's just not make it an issue. In sum, most Bible Belt conservatives won't want to find out what Jesus really was (an unshaven, non-white, egalitarian (in those days that was a leftist), homeless, troublemaker revolutionary with long hair who seemed to think it was OK to pay taxes ("render unto Caesar what is Caesar's"). If he came today as he was then, would the GOP right wing religious Christian conservatives and their racist Tea Party radical faction actually get up and follow him? I am doubter in that regard. They would probably have him taken out by AK-47 via a racist white supremacy group backed and protected by the Koch Brothers. FYI – Santa Clause doesn't really exist but don't tell Kelly.

      April 3, 2014 at 3:16 pm |
    • frankbeattys

      And some say Hebrew is any member of an ancient northern Semitic people that were the ancestors of the Jews.

      April 6, 2014 at 9:43 pm |
  4. idiotusmaximus

    Call Jesus (or Santa) white? Expect a big fight................

    I think it's pathetic that religionists fight over 2 fictional characters Santa and Jesus.....you ever notice they never fight over 4 plus 4 is 8...it's kind of hard to fight over what is real and provable.....isn't it?

    February 28, 2014 at 7:01 pm |
    • codenine75a

      Santa Claus was the nick name for a Irishman Saint named St. Nickolas. Jesus and Santa are NOT the same man.

      March 3, 2014 at 2:20 am |
    • Choir Loft

      I think its pathetic that religious bigots don't know the difference between math and historic figures. Claiming to be wise they have proved themselves to be fools.

      and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      March 24, 2014 at 2:06 pm |
  5. m.s.mohamed ansari

    HISTORY + 114 . MDCCLXXVI +114.UNITEDKING+114
    Please bring original HISTORY .Six thousand journalist are suppressing the truth of history but in one day it will come out
    Now we are in 21st century there were times former journalist exposed truth and sacrificed their precious life for the sake of truth, they unveiled the real history. Perhaps contradicting to their present power and money clouded their mind and our upcoming generation becomes a victim.
    We do not believe politicians as we used to, we do not believe the media, and whereas we believe each other”
    Thanking you
    Your’s sincerely
    M.S.MOHAMED ANSARI
    Pragmatism has now fallen foul of the continuing power of the press.

    February 7, 2014 at 7:57 am |
    • Choir Loft

      Quite true, sir. 21st century journalism has been corrupted by commercialism and political expediency. The days of truth in the media are over.

      and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      March 24, 2014 at 2:14 pm |
  6. Lamar

    The Samsung comes with Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit installed, a 3-in-1 media reader and three USB 2. If you're looking for something user-friendly and within your budget, you can't go wrong with an Acer.
    Lamar http://gamepcreview.com

    February 6, 2014 at 5:12 am |
  7. Jack

    Why is it that we WASP's have to make everything in our on image? Are we so swallow? Well, Maybe some of them are, but I am not!

    It doesn't matter to me! I am A WASP's And I believe in Jesus And I enjoy X-mas and Santa Clause!

    February 5, 2014 at 2:47 pm |
  8. Wizodd

    Jesus was a chameleon...

    Santa is a elf.

    February 5, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
  9. john Rosen

    Just one more issue that liberals are trying to create division. It is absurd to even suggest that Jesus and Santa Claus were anything other than Caucasian. Toy manufacturers invented ethnic dolls and such to sell more toys.

    February 5, 2014 at 12:21 pm |
  10. Manalto

    The BBC library thinks Jesus was cross-eyed.

    February 5, 2014 at 11:58 am |
  11. Chuck

    Stir up that hatred.

    But anyway, its well know that the Jews are racially and literally Caucasians considering
    they came from Iraq and northern Syria.
    Of course Jesus was white.
    Its a Lie to say he is African, since he only Visited Egypt and was born in Judea

    February 5, 2014 at 5:41 am |
  12. raul

    all i got to say is Jesus was so far ahead of his time that they crucified him for it.. now look at whos tyring to crucify who...

    February 4, 2014 at 5:27 pm |
  13. CaptainObvious

    Though I never met Jesus, I would imagine he would look like a man of Jewish descent, would he not?

    February 4, 2014 at 5:01 pm |
  14. Bob Saggus

    Who the hell cares. Why don't you "Christians" focus on what he said and not the freaking color of his skin. Nobody has proof of anything because none of you actually lived back then. I think that it makes the most sense, however, that he was middle-eastern considering the fact that he lived, well, in the middle east. But again who on Earth really cares?

    February 4, 2014 at 2:13 pm |
    • Clay

      You "Christians"? Rest assured, if one is a Christian, they most certainly concern themselves with His teachings. Do no be misled or try to mislead because of a fruitless article finds itself on the media. These days that is considered "working as intended".

      Christ came to testify to the Truth. If you're tired of the lies, turn to Him.

      February 5, 2014 at 2:00 pm |
    • Choir Loft

      As long as someone loves you, there will be a Santa Clause. If that person is Chinese, then Santa will have almond eyes. It makes no difference between the giver and the receiver.
      ***
      The same is true for Christ. His sacrifice enables fellowship with God and the hope of eternal life. The earthly appearance of Jesus makes no difference between Our Lord and His disciples.

      and that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      March 24, 2014 at 2:24 pm |
  15. cj

    Rynomite...Jesus is not a "mythical creature". Romans kept very good records, and their records match what the Bible says about his crucifixion. In addition, many non-believers who study history from the region say the most accurate and complete historical account of the times (to include judges, leaders, locations of cities, etc) is the Bible. Some claim the Bible is total fiction, but none of it has ever been disproved and much of it has been proven through other records, archaeological digs, and other research.

    February 4, 2014 at 12:16 pm |
    • g2-8621476e47c1886404d6f649be8aeee9

      Actually, the account of the destruction of Tyre, Lebanon, as held in Ezekiel was completely dis-proven (as was the ridiculous prophecy of it never being rebuilt). Tyre, Lebanon was never even breached, let alone destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. It did have it's walls breached by Alexander the Great, who then left the city intact, but used the walls to fill in the north harbor and create a bridge out of the rubble to the mainland. He used Tyre to resupply and send ships. Tyre, Lebanon still stands to this day and is quite populated.

      February 5, 2014 at 7:14 pm |
  16. patrick

    my imaginary friend is better then your imaginary friend!

    January 27, 2014 at 11:18 pm |
    • Xloadha

      Somebody posting like this must be addicted to the anti-spiritual age of consumerism. So good luck with your old aging. LOL

      February 4, 2014 at 4:17 pm |
  17. Rynomite

    I didn't know mythical beings had color.

    January 24, 2014 at 4:10 pm |
    • the colosseum is full

      When I saw him under the influence of Columbian Pot, his face was black as sackcloth and his hair whiter than wool... his eyes were full of fire and I shook in incredible fear and dread seeking not to look at his face which followed me where ever my eyes would go.. my mouth was sayn in a loud voice , "Thank you Lord Jesus for my salvation" repeatedly ...all the time I'm saying in my mind that I'll never touch that stuff again. :) I'm glad that I am able to laugh about it all these years after... that was in 1975

      January 25, 2014 at 3:02 pm |
    • Carrie Higby

      If Jesus had been an Anglo Saxon white man with Blue eyes and light brown /or blonde hair as many pictures depict him; It would have DEFINITELY been recorded in history because to the rest of the population he would have stood out like a Alien!! there is no way that Jesus was a caucation white man. He was definitely of darker color, and as a Nazarene had long hair, keep in mind that this man traveled (by foot ) extensively spending allot of time traversing the desert.....so as a man with more melatonin in his genetic make-up he also would have tanned quite well, making him even darker!!

      January 28, 2014 at 9:41 am |
      • Susie S. Mozell-Smith

        What I am about to post is shocking, off the charts, out of this world, supernatural, but true. Most of all now it can be proven, Jesus is a black brother with afro.God has given me a book, Lily Grace the Prophetic Word of God, Paving the way for Jesus return to prove that he is God and the creator of all things. God also has told me what he is and that he has a wife, and her name is Wisdom. God is the element hydrogen. God has given the world the book to prove I am who he has sent me to be, The Elijah the end times Prophetess. The book has many other mysteries revealed. visit http://www.propheticwordofgod.org or search for me on the internet by name or my latest Press release Headline, Lily Grace:

        New book by Evangelist Prophetess announces that the end times have arrived.

        January 28, 2014 at 2:21 pm |
      • Anna

        Then I me and everyone in my family must be a contradiction to my own ethnicity, because like Jesus, I am also a Jew with light brown hair/blondish hair and GREEN eyes. When did Anglo-Saxons have a monopoly on "fair" colour. I consider Middle Eastern people white but according to many of you, only Celtic and Anglo-Saxon people are white. Whatever. I guess I should start checking "other" on federal forms. There are Anglo-Saxons with Olive Skin and Brown eyes. Rowan Atkinson is one person who comes to mind. So, I guess he must not be Anglo-Saxon or Celtic according to your ignorant and stereotypical standards of how certain ethnicities should look.

        February 1, 2014 at 6:06 pm |
        • Manalto

          I'm of Irish and Italian ancestry. I always check "Other" on forms that inquire about my race, and I encourage others to do the same. Any other choice perpetuates racism or policies that, no matter what they claim to do, are racist in character.

          February 5, 2014 at 11:56 am |
  18. Ann Marie

    Santa aka st. Nick is Greek and white but if we where to play this game, can dr. King and Malcolm X be white in my home? I'm not a racist person and don't include myself in this battle of black and white America but to take something and change it so reflect your self image is just wrong. Jesus is not black but middle eastern I agree but st. Nick is white no matter what color you want to pain him as.

    January 23, 2014 at 9:30 pm |
    • Pamela

      Um, Ann Marie, get out of the house much? There are black "middle eastern"s...but I'll agree that St. Nick is a pain.

      January 26, 2014 at 12:08 am |
      • CaptainObvious

        I really don't care much for this debate and find it pointless, but a "black" man and travelling rabbi of full-blooded Jewish descent?

        Nah, I think he quite certainly looked like a Jew.

        February 4, 2014 at 5:05 pm |
    • raul

      first off st nickolaus is greek there is also a pagan god st nick who IS WHITE the greek guy is not white so you got your guys mixed up. plus the greeks back then werent as culturaly divers being mixed with English as they are today so they would definatly be darker.t second the mythical being a myth mean you can make him waht you want.. coca cola created the American version we celebrate along with Macys in the 1940s . as for jesus i cant imagine jesus and mary walking into palestine with blonde hair blue eyes asking for a room ? sounds more to me like german toursist trying to find a place in miami beach. sore thumb

      February 4, 2014 at 5:23 pm |
  19. Davin

    Then why did CNN insist on calling Zimmerman white?

    January 23, 2014 at 12:36 pm |
  20. ea

    It says in the Bible that Jesus, (Yeshua) did not stand out from the Jews of His day. In other words He looked like any other Semite of His day.
    And since B.O. has taken the place of "Santa" for many, you could say he (Santa) is mulatto or bi-racial.

    January 22, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.